by Jesse Leaneagh
Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman’s documentary Sembène! is a powerful portal into 20th and 21st century African history, via the life and lens of Senegalese filmmaker and artist/activist Ousmane Sembène. Little work is done by talking heads in this documentary, with substantial archival footage from the African continent—some images so old and lyrical they seem like lucid shafts of light from distant cellar doors—weaving together Sembène film excerpts and interviews, as well as photographs, and footage of the man himself. Mostly chronological, Sembène! is organized neatly by title cards that cue the viewer into different perspectives on the life of the Senegalese auteur. The film’s title cards are animated colorfully, in an almost childlike fashion, yet they also recall ideas of silhouette and shadow, as in the work of Kara Walker. The film traverses two personal timelines: Sembène’s, of course, but also that of the documentarian Samba Gadjigo, whose backstory remains more private.
Walker Art Center
Directors: Samba Gadjigo, Jason Silverman
Producers: Samba Gadjigo, Jason Silverman
Writers: Samba Gadjigo, Jason Silverman
Editor: Ricardo Acosta
Country: USA, Senegal
Premiere: January 23, 2015 – Sundance Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: November 6, 2015
US Distributor: Kino Lorber
The film is a respectful biographical study. Sembène! claims that in France Sembène was “seduced by the beauty and power of European art,” but does not elucidate that formal effect on his work. Before colonial rule ended, France prohibited any Senegalese from making films or even picking up a camera. So Sembène’s first film was made of leftover film stock his European friends sent him. What emerged in La noire de…(Black Girl)—Sembène’s debut and also the first feature-length film by an African director—was an articulation of his vision that “black people need a black cinema.” La noire de… won best film at the first Pan African Arts Festival in Dakar, Senegal, as well as the 1966 Prix Jean Vigo in France.
After La noire de…, Sembène was invited to be the first African member of the jury at Cannes. Sembène! has a wonderful montage of footage from what could only be the 1967 Cannes Film Festival, infiltrated as it was by Brit mod bobs and bods, uncomfortably bared and grimacing on the step and repeat (this was the year of Antonioni’s Blowup, after all) whilst Sembène in kaftan and pipe can be seen smiling genuinely, nonpareil, adjacent to the fuss. Near the end of his life, Sembène received recognition again at Cannes, for his work on Moolaadé. “It is nice to receive recognition at Cannes,” he said, “but Africa needs its own thing. We are not eternal guests.” He was 81 years old when he released Moolaadé (in English: “Magical Protection”), his cri de cœur against female genital excision, and, according to the documentarians, was nearly blind, spending much of the production dehydrated with an IV in his arm all night, yet up again at 6 AM to work until the film was complete.
Many of Sembène’s films were banned: Xala and Ceddo in his home country of Senegal and Camp de Thiaroye in France. Sembène! spends considerable time on Ceddo, one of Sembène’s most personal works and, daresay, his Afro-Futurist film, which was scored with considerable spaciousness by Manu Dibango. Cinephiles may find it interesting that Sembène completed Ceddo in 1977 by mortgaging the house he built with his own hands. Ceddo explores the colonial nature of religion, including Islam, in African life, and Sembène even cast himself in a brief cameo where an imam renames him. Like Hitchcock, Sembène appeared in his films, but that’s where the similarity ends—Sembène dealt little in spotty signifiers of paranoia, hysteria, and dread. For Sembène, the individual is inextricable from the community, and so when he’s seen in his films it seems playful, or at the least a non-hierarchical gesture, as if he was working towards understanding embodiment in his own film projects. “Cinema has a mathematical aspect,” Sembène says at one point in the documentary, “I am the spectator as well as the storyteller.”
An hour into the documentary, the film relaxes a bit as we see how the life of the documentarian—Samba Gadjigo, professor of French at Mount Holyoke College—aligned with the auteur himself. For the final seventeen years of Sembène’s life, Professor Gadjigo was the personal guide to Sembène as he navigated festivals and museums, public appearances and interviews. The documentary also provides some crucial information on why the films of Sembène are not available commercially. (Although many can be found online, some DVDs, including Xala, come at a high price.)
The only thing I wish the film had focused more on is Sembène’s multi-faceted literary impact. Sembène’s relationship to Pan-Africanism could be another film entirely: what were his relationships—if any—with Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta, Patrice Lumumba, Ahmed Sékou Touré, and Amilcar Cabral? The film does include great photographs of Sembène with some of his friends: important thinkers, activists, and revolutionaries of the 20th century. Sembène! is a great introduction to a filmmaker whose films deserve a wider audience. Sembène was a revolutionary and a humanist full of provocative ideas. Viva Sembène.